First, the maker of America's second-most popular college entrance exam releases this year's test scores and declares incoming freshmen largely unprepared for math and science classes. A week later, results from the nation's No. 1 test show math scores at a 35-year high.
Something doesn't add up.
In the wake of the annual release of ACT and SAT test scores, educators are still disagreeing about what to make of the results. One testing critic calls the discrepancy a result of marketing efforts aimed at setting the two exams apart.
"These are businesses in a nonprofit form," said Robert Schaeffer of FairTest, an organization that advocates balanced standardized exams.
The ACT scores for the high school class of 2003 were identical in math and science to the year before — 20.6 and 20.8, respectively, on a 36-point scale. In the past five years, math and science scores have dropped slightly on the test, taken by nearly 1.2 million of last spring's high school graduates.
Researchers for the ACT analyzed this year's results and concluded that just 26 percent of test-takers were ready to handle college coursework in science and 40 percent in math.
Meanwhile, the SAT math scores were the best since at least 1967: 519 on a scale with a top score of 800. Since the 1999 exam, math scores are up eight points.
Some educators say the number of students enrolled in remedial math and science courses at four-year schools support the ACT's conclusions.
Michael Kirst, a Stanford University education professor, said the ACT's position is compatible with a study he co-authored earlier this year. It also found that many freshmen are not prepared for college math and science, despite gains in achievement scores.
But Andrew Porter, the director of the Learning Sciences Institute at Vanderbilt University maintains the SAT scores do, in fact, represent an upward trend in math and science proficiency.
"To have scores higher than 35 years ago and to be testing a larger and more diverse student body than was tested 35 years ago is pretty darn impressive — whether they're ready for college or not," Porter said.
Porter and other educators noted that the assessments of the SAT and ACT reflect the differences between the exams and the students who take the tests.
Although most universities are willing to factor either or both tests into the admissions process, the SAT is generally the primary exam taken by students on the two coasts, educators noted. It also figures more prominently in the admissions procedures at elite colleges and universities. The ACT is popular in the middle of the country, where it is the standard used by many public institutions.
Headquartered in Iowa City, Iowa, the nonprofit ACT based its findings on whether students reached "college readiness" benchmarks in the math and science sections of the exam.
It also gave students a questionnaire about their class work, which found fewer than half took three years of science and four years of math classes.
"I don't believe it's a perception," said Cyndie Schemer, the ACT's vice president of development. "I think what we have here is a real issue supported by remedial course work that supports our data."
The New York-based College Board, the nonprofit association that administers the SAT, credited the boost in math scores on that test to increased enrollment in "rigorous" college preparatory math and science classes. The number of students taking precalculus has jumped by 12 percent since 1993, it said.
Schaeffer, the testing reformer, said that the ACT-SAT difference boils down to promotion of products. To appeal to the public and the media, each test-maker stresses "what's newsy" about its annual findings.
"They are businesses and they are involved in a fight for market share in the same way that Ford promotes the unique aspects its products and Chevy promotes its products," he said.